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Case

Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth

Last Updated: 5/29/2020

Overview

What's at stake

  • Whether state universities can force unwilling students to fund campus organizations that advocate ideas the students would not contribute to voluntarily.
  • The right of Christian student groups to receive student fee funding on an equal basis with other groups.
  • The government may not exclude religious speech from a public forum based on its content or viewpoint.  

Summary

Scott Southworth was a lifelong fan of the University of Wisconsin and attended the University for both his undergraduate and legal educations, but he grew increasingly frustrated with the University’s policy of collecting mandatory student fees and using them only to support organizations he disagreed with.  After the University refused his request to simply opt out of paying the $13 fee, Scott contacted Alliance Defending Freedom and filed a lawsuit to correct this injustice.  He never imagined that simple act would lead to several years of litigation, including before the United States Supreme Court, and would ultimately correct this unjust practice in public universities around the country. 

The University of Wisconsin, like many other public universities, required all students to pay a student fee which was used to fund student groups on campus.  The University’s policy allowed the university to decide which groups would be funded.   The University would not allow students to opt out of paying the fee, even though their money was supporting organizations they did not agree with. 

With the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, Scott filed a lawsuit in federal court.  After winning his case at both the trial court and the appeals court, the University doubled down and appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, which decided to hear it.  The result was a 9-0 opinion that ruled that public universities must allocate student fee funding in a viewpoint neutral fashion if they choose to make paying the fee mandatory.  Ultimately, this opened the door for Christian student groups nationwide to seek funding for their events on an equal basis with other student groups.

But for Scott Southworth, this case wasn’t just about student group funding.  “I learned the importance, the power one voice can have in our society. Every person has a voice. We should listen.” he said.  “Our cause wasn’t about $13 in student fees. It was about ensuring that Christian students had the same rights on public university campuses as every other student.”

Our role in this case

Scott Harold Southworth first contacted ADF, who then offered the case to allied attorney Jordan Lorence (now an ADF staff attorney).  ADF funded the litigation expenses from the beginning of this case all the way through its time at the U.S. Supreme Court.

This ruling has served as important precedent for enabling Christian student groups to receive university funding on an equal footing with other groups, which in turn enables those groups to reach more students on campus with the love of Christ.  Students are no longer forced to contribute financially toward the activities of groups they are opposed to without the assurance that groups they agree with will also get a fair chance at receiving funding. 

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Biographies

Jordan Lorence

Senior Counsel, Director of Strategic Engagement

Jordan Lorence serves as senior counsel and director of strategic engagement with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he plays a key role with the Strategic Relations & Training Team.

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